Striker's Guilt

Chesterfield's Paul Guyot feels isolated from his fellow picketers in Hollywood.

Dec 12, 2007 at 4:00 am
Since November 5, when the members of the Writers Guild of America raised their picket signs against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, television and film screenwriters have found solidarity in numbers. Life on the picket line can have elements of fun. In New York writers gather to perform underground staged versions of sitcoms, while in Los Angeles they participate in Diversity Day and are fed by Jay Leno.

Life for the one striking St. Louis-area writer is quite different. His name is Paul Guyot. He's 39, lives in Chesterfield and doesn't even have a picket sign. He does, however, possess a WGA strike T-shirt.

"I feel isolated in St. Louis," he admits. "I also feel guilty. The guys on the picket lines are doing their part, and I'm not. I came close to getting on a plane to LA, but when I started adding up the costs — plane ticket, hotel, rental car — I couldn't pull the trigger." Instead, Guyot has tried to raise public awareness of the real facts and numbers behind the strike. He wrote a short essay titled "Why Writers Are On Strike," which he posted on the St. Louis Writers Guild's Web site.

"People out here don't know what's going on," he says. "They think we're all millionaire writers who want more money. It's staggering how little we're asking for, and we're being touted as ridiculous." Guyot views himself as middle-class. He drives a Toyota and his house is considered large only compared to where he and his family lived in Los Angeles. "Here, we got three times the house for one-third of the price," he explains.

Guyot joined the WGA nine years ago, after retiring from a decade-long career as the self-proclaimed "best stand-in in Hollywood." Since then, he has been employed every year, working on shows like Felicity and Judging Amy. This is a rarity; at any given time, approximately half of the WGA's 12,000 members are out of work. "I've been really lucky," he says.

Several years ago, Guyot moved with his family to Chesterfield to be near to St. Louis, his wife's hometown. He concedes relocating to the Midwest was "a little unprecedented."

"LA is great if you're young and single," he says, "not so great if you're fat and married with kids. I wanted to get out of there." In St. Louis he has managed to carve out a niche as a writer of TV pilots, specializing in one-hour crime dramas. A few have been shot — most recently Talk to Me, about hostage negotiators — but none have aired. "The business is mercurial," he says.

This past spring Guyot made his annual trip to LA to pitch projects to the studios. One, a drama about a family of St. Louis cops, caught the attention of Peter Horton. The former actor best known for playing Gary on thirtysomething, is now a producer and director who has worked on high-profile shows like Grey's Anatomy. Guyot and Horton sold the idea to the A&E Television Network. The network approved Guyot's outline for the pilot episode in October. On November 2, Guyot signed another deal with FOX to write the pilot for a series based on Sean Chercover's novel Big City, Bad Blood. Three days later he went on strike.

Financially the strike came at a most inopportune time for Guyot. "I don't get paid until I commence writing," he explains. "But we went on strike, so I got no money."

Guyot has not received a paycheck since August 2006. This year he has lived off his savings and the residuals he earned from Judging Amy. "That's the residual rate from 1988," he adds. At approximately 4 cents per DVD, Guyot has earned a total of $6,000. "After Christmas," he says, "I can afford to go on for one more month."

The WGA last went on strike in 1988. The impasse lasted 22 weeks and cost the entertainment industry $500 million.

"It crippled the industry," Guyot says. "But things are different now. The networks and studios are all owned by large conglomerates and we can't hurt them. They're so large that they can afford to just wait us out. Our guild is weak. We were never strong and unified, and we always rolled over too easily. Compared to the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild, we're like the idiot cousin at the picnic."

The writers' demands this time around appear modest. They want to double their residual rate from DVD sales, from .3 percent to .6 percent. More importantly, they want a share of the burgeoning Internet market. The Financial Times estimates that television networks will earn $120 million in advertising revenues from streaming programs on their Web sites this year. But because the networks consider Web streaming "promotional" — unlike a conventional broadcast — the writers' share is nothing.

"In a few years, all TV will be broadcast over the Internet," Guyot predicts. "And the networks will tell us, 'It's the Net, so you don't get anything.' The corporations say the streaming is all promotional and there's no revenue, but that's a total lie. They're making so much more money. They have no distribution costs or storage costs. This is really a watershed moment for the industry. If we don't fight now, we're never going to get our share."

Still, as negotiations between the writers and producers drag on, Guyot has begun to feel nervous. "There are guys like me with families to feed, who need health insurance," he says. "I'm torn. I believe in what we're fighting for and want to take a stand, but I also don't want to be broke. The little guy can't always fight the dragon."

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